Su Lum: About chili peppers
December 18, 2002
WARNING: The following column contains language that might shock somebody.
My friend Nancy Thomas called me the other day in a state of major agitation, to report that upon sending an e-mail to her brother, a message had popped up on her screen showing two red chili peppers and reading: “Mood warning. Your message to Dave is likely to offend the average reader. You might consider toning it down.”
Having always thought that our dependence on computers will be our downfall and that Big Brother is right around the corner, I was as horrified as Nancy was. She read me the offending e-mail, and the offense was apparently the single use of the s-word.
“Try it again with the f-word and call me back,” I suggested.
Alors, the f-word triggered THREE red-hot chili peppers and the warning: “This is the sort of thing that can get your keyboard’s mouth washed out with soap, if you get my drift. You might try toning it down.”
Good lord. “If you get MY drift!” Who was this anonymous censor?
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To shorten a long story, it turned out that the red-hot chili pepper messages are an optional feature of the Eudora e-mail program (and maybe others) for incoming or outgoing mail, or both, and Nancy must have accidentally hit a key that activated it. It can be deactivated, but there was no mention of the chili peppers in Nancy’s Eudora manual.
While this was seemingly benign, along the lines of Spell Check, which (not always accurately) flags misspelled words, Nancy and I were eager to get to the bottom of it, so to speak (no chili peppers for “butt”) ? what words would cause different numbers of red-hot chili peppers?
On Sunday, Nancy, her husband Roger Davis, Bruce Berger and I convened in Nancy’s home office to challenge Eudora, named after Eudora Welty ? I’m sure she’s twisting in her grave.
The room was ringing with expletives, which Nancy tapped into her computer. Bastard got three chilis, bitch got two, but son-of-a-bitch got three. Ass got two, assh**e and the c-words got three.
We were especially curious to learn which words would bring up ONE chili pepper, to see what that warning message would be. Hell, damn, screw, piss, fart, and even goddamn passed without a single chili.
Bruce, who had been getting chilis but no warning messages on his computer, remembered that “idiot” had been flagged.
Shock set in when we realized that the computer wasn’t just looking for offensive words. The word “idiot” went through without a chili, but, “You’re an idiot” got THREE, as did “The idiot farted.”
“Piss” got none, but “piss off” got three. “Tit” got none, but “Look at those tits” got three. The computer was into NUANCE! The computer was putting the words in context! The computer was making judgments not just on the words, but on the TONE of the message.
Today the Eudora program is optional. I remember when seat belts were optional, before all those signs popped up along the highway saying, “Buckle UP, it’s the LAW!”
Overnight, these little warnings could turn into felony offenses.
[Su Lum is a longtime local who doesn’t think we have the wisdom to keep pace with our technology. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.]